Van Morrison’s show at the Wiltern last year was pure country. This year it’s all about assimilation. “Pay the Devil,” a disc dominated by covers of 1950s and ’60s post-twang Nashville tunes, exposed a side of Morrison that had only been hinted at over the years, most noticeably 30-odd years ago on “Tupelo Honey.” With a different band in tow at the Gibson Amphitheater, Morrison eased into the territory of his idols — Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and James Brown — plowing through the boundaries that separate R&B and country.
It was about as American a show as one may ever get from the Belfast Cowboy, who turned in a fine Louis Armstrong impersonation, delivered a few inspired rapid-fire alto sax solos and marvelously mumbled Cooke’s “You Send Me” as a coda to “Real Real Gone.” His rock ‘n’ roll choices were limited to “Gloria,” “Wild Night” and “Brown-Eyed Girl”; the rest of the night was soaked in blues, jazz and country, but only the most hardcore examples — “Saint James Infirmary,” Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” and his George Jones-inspired composition “Playhouse” — were blocked from any cross-genre pollination.
Rest of the evening was a throwback to the Charles methodology of the early 1960s: A strong commanding vocal filled with agony and the pursuit of joy; horns and organs that ebb and flow in volume and texture; female voices to soften the blow of the lyrics; and instrumental soloists who echo the timbre of the singer. On Wednesday, Sarah Jory did a spectacular job with weepy pedal steel and dobro solos, even garnering chuckles when she slipped Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” into “Bright Side of the Road.”
The jump blues version of “Moondance” that Morrison’s been playing since he cut two jazz-influenced albums for Blue Note and “Bright Side of the Road” were the lone hopeful tunes in the 95-minute set; he allowed daughter Shauna to open the show with a record-perfect version of “Into the Mystic,” which she covered rather nicely.
Morrison is not touring. He was in town to accept the U.S.-Ireland Alliance’s annual award at its Oscar Wilde party Thursday at the Wilshire Ebell Theater. Perf also coincided with EMI’s release of “Van Morrison at the Movies,” a compilation of the singer’s tracks that have appeared in films.